Allow myself to almost disenfranchise … myself

Wherein I relate the misfortunate series of events that almost resulted in me not being able to participate in our American democratic process.

This morning I woke up early, at 6:30am, to get to the polls before driving in to work. I’d coordinated with my sister to go vote together and then car pool in to work. When I moved in with her at the beginning of 2003, when the lease to my apartament in Alexandia ended, my mailing address switched to her house in Sterling. Until today, I was pretty certain that I had informed the Va DMV of my new address. Loudoun County knew to hit me up for property taxes on my car so I assumed that my new address had propogated through the system. After getting married and moving to Staci’s house, I hadn’t updated DMV of my latest move so I anticipated voting at the same polling location as my sister.

After walking her dog, we headed over to the elementary school to vote and were happy to see short lines at the polls. Loudoun county still uses paper ballots so no one was having any trouble marking their ballots. Patty approaced the table for the M’s and handed the lady working the table her driver’s license. They found her name in the list of polls and had her go to poll both but before she did she turned to me saying "Your name isn’t on the list."

Sure enough, my name wasn’t on the list and I was handed off to another volunteer to help sort out my status. A teacher from the elementary school was in the same boat as I was and we waited while the volunteer lady called the voter board to have them run our identification through the system. I was surprised that she was forced to call the main line, which was busy and put us on hold for almost 10 minutes. I would have thought the volunteers might have a different number than the public line to expedite their requests. When we got a person on the line, she told us that I was still registered to vote in Alexandria.

I headed in to work, thinking I could take some time off in the early afternoon to go vote but also contemplating the idea of not voting altogether. Well, I got sucked into some meetings after lunch and emerged around 6 ready to go home. As I sat in my car seriously tempting myself to avoid the possibly long poll lines and just head over to Patty’s office to pick her up, I thought "This election is too important. How much have you followed it, posted about it, and now when it comes down to it you’re gonna skip it? This isn’t high school calculus, this will affect the rest of your life!"

I drove down to the elementary school tucked around Edsall Road where I voted in 2000. I almost passed by it, parked on a side street, and saw that there wasn’t a line of voters snaking out of the school gymnasium. There really weren’t that many people waiting to vote inside either. I showed my driver’s license and was asked for my address. At that very moment, my brain decided that it was time to take a break and I froze for about 30 seconds until I could remember by address. I got a quizical look from the poll worker but she must have assumed I had a long day or something. She handed me a yellow verified voter card that was the key to getting a 4 digit pin for the touch screen voting machines that Alexandria uses.

I wasn’t very impressed by the machines used to vote. First of, I didn’t notice any option for reading the ballot in anything but English, a common benefit cited by proponents of electronic voting machines. Second, while there was a numeric keypad to enter the PIN, it didn’t work for me. Instead, the complete interaction with the machine was through a jog dial and a big enter button. Yes. Instead of using a numeric keypad to punch in the PIN, like I and everyone else is used to doing when they want to get cash from an ATM, I had to turn the dial, highlight each number one at a time, and press enter. To select the presidential candidates, I had to jog the dial and hit enter. And so on. I’d like to know what genius thought this would be a better user interface for the general population. It might make sense if you were blind and wanted to cycle through the options as the machine reads to you.

In the end, I managed to vote. Despite my unconcious attempts to sabotage my enfranchisement. It took just 20 minutes total out of my day. Some final lessons:

  • I need to take a trip to the DMV to sort out my address,
  • Letting the government collect information on us may not be so bad if they can’t communicate it throughout their systems.
  • I’m interested in hearing other’s experiences with electronic voting machines